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Where to start with Shirley Jackson’s books

Some thought Shirley Jackson was a witch, others dismissed her as an alcoholic… but more still call her the greatest horror writer of the 20th Century.

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Dismissed variously as a frumpy housewife, an oddball and a ‘genre writer’ by the male literary establishment, Shirley Jackson was overlooked for decades despite writing formidable relevant gothic horror stories full of menace. despite dying relatively early at 48, she wrote prolifically and penned what the New Yorker‘s editors said was ‘probably the most controversial story [the magazine] has ever published’. It’s time we gave Jackson the credit she deserves, so read on for where to start with the woman who wrote “not with a pen, but a broomstick”…

Dark Tales
Shirley Jackson

Dark Tales is a selection of 17 of Jackson’s short stories, released as an elegant Modern Classic, but don’t be fooled by its polished exterior; inside lurk some of the most chilling and disconcerting tales of domestic life gone wrong that you could hope to read. From office to kitchen sink, Jackson turns the most innocuous every day settings into places to be afraid of – and in. As with many of her stories, it’s hard not to draw parallels between herpersonal dissatisfaction with the housewife’s lot and these tales of horror hidden beneath a glossy suburban veneer.

The Lottery and Other Stories
Shirley Jackson

If the stories in Dark Tales have whetted your appetite, it’s time to move on to The Lottery, the infamously chilling piece Jackson first wrote for The New Yorker, originally published in the magazine in 1948. It’s hard to explain the immense tension that builds throughout these few pages without giving away details – suffice to say that for months after its initial publication, the author received reactions ranging from ‘bewilderment’ to “old-fashioned abuse”. Set in a small village with striking similarities to North Bennington, Vermont, where Jackson unhappily settled after her marriage, it tells of a horrifying ritual conducted quite casually by the locals.

The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House is the story of a group that spends the summer in a grand house to determine whether it’s home to supernatural activity. Occult expert Dr Montague and his companions, soon start to experience events far beyond mortal comprehension, as the house’s long-suffering caretakers can testify. From poltergeists to unreliable narrators, Jackson plays with the boundaries of reality and we can’t help but feel that Eleanor, the young recluse of the party, is imagining many of the events. Claustrophobic and full of suspense, this novel delves into the darkest corners of Jackson’s imagination.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson

Jackson suffered from crippling anxiety and panic attacks, as well as agoraphobia, and some have suggested that the dark and suffocating atmosphere in her fiction is a direct response to her reluctance to take part in the outside world. If that’s the case, she must have been at her most inward-looking when she wrote this book, set in a huge rural house outside a village in, you guessed it, Vermont. Long considered her finest work, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is something of a macabre locked-house mystery with a dash of magic and superstition, which follows an uncle and two nieces as they unwrap the family’s murky secrets.

The Bird’s Nest
Shirley Jackson

It’s been argued that one of the reasons Jackson was overlooked for so long is the number of female protagonists in her work. Here, again, we follow a young woman with an unreliable (maybe) view of the world around her. This time it’s a multiple personality disorder that calls her perception into question. This is only Jackson’s third novel, but you can already seethe themes of her later works ererging as it explores a sense of otherness, distorted reality, claustrophobia and domesticity.


Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson was born in California in 1916. When her short story, ‘The Lottery’, was first published in the New Yorker in 1948, readers were so horrified they sent her hate mail; it has since become one of the most iconic American stories of all time. Her first novel, The Road Through the Wall, was published in the same year and was followed by Hangsaman, The Bird’s Nest, The Sundial, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, widely seen as her masterpiece. In addition to her dark, brilliant novels, she wrote lightly fictionalized magazine pieces about family life with her four children and her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Shirley Jackson died in 1965.

Read more

Eerie, anxious, foreboding: no wonder we can’t get enough of Shirley Jackson

Why is the author, whose dark stories “told a secret history of women”, resonating with modern readers?

23 July 2020
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A.M. Homes on Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.

A.M. Homes introduces the transformative work of one of her favourite authors.

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The best horror books to give you the chills

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Some thought Shirley Jackson was a witch, others dismissed her as an alcoholic… but more still call her the greatest horror writer of the twentieth century ]]>